Servile Marriages

Soon to be wed Faiz Mohammed, 40, and Ghulam Haider 11, Ghowr Province, Afghanistan. (Photo by Stephanie Sinclair)

O ye who believe! Ye are forbidden to inherit women against their will.” ~ Qur’an [4:19]

Forced marriages, child brides, and ‘mail-order brides’ are all different from the arranged marriages which have been customary in some cultures for generations. Early marriage and forced marriage are the two most common forms of violent behavior against women and girls.

Forced marriages are arranged, but without the consent of all parties. Issues of consent may be murky due to coercion by social or financial pressures. The woman may be traded, given or sold to her prospective husband. In some countries it is not uncommon for a pre-pubescent girl to be betrothed to a much older man. Forced marriage may include the practice of “Pleasure Marriages” (Nikah al-Mut’-ah) — a pre-Islamic custom allowing men to marry for a limited period. Apart from being a cover for legalized prostitution (the marriage can last for as little as 30 minutes), the wife is deprived of many rights. No divorce is necessary in “pleasure marriages,” for instance, and the husband may void the marriage earlier than agreed. The practice is still common in some Muslim cultures.

Child marriage is forced marriage. Sixty million girls around the world have been forced into marriage before the age of 18, a number that grows by 25,000 child brides every day. Tragically, 1 in 7 girls in developing countries is married by age 15 — often to a man twice her age or older. Child brides are often separated from friends and family and are denied an education. They are  at higher risk for violence, HIV, and death during pregnancy or childbirth. Child marriage is a human rights violation.

The consequences of this pervasive practice are grim and often deadly. Child brides have a diminished chance of completing their education, resulting in limited opportunities and income-earning potential later in life. These girls are twice as likely to be beaten or threatened with violence by their husbands than girls who marry later in life. In addition, child marriage is usually accompanied by early child bearing, placing young girls at risk for complications during and after childbirth. In fact, complications associated with pregnancy and childbirth are a leading cause of death for girls ages 15–19 worldwide.

‘Mail-order bride’ is a term used to describe the practice of women who make themselves available for proposals of marriage, usually to men in developed countries. In 2007 a federal U.S. District Court specifically found, in relation to the regulation of this practice, that: “the rates of domestic violence against immigrant women are much higher than those of the U.S. population.” Often these women may be escaping dire social or economic conditions, may not speak the language of the country to which they are emigrating, and certainly may be unfamiliar with the cultural landscape. As their immigration status is dependent on their marital status, they may find themselves quite at the mercy of husbands who have paid a broker and feel a sense of ownership.

Each year thousands of women come to the United States through International Marriage Broker firms (IMB’s). Many refer to these women as “mail order brides.” These women travel significant distances from their families and communities to enter into marriages arranged by IMBs. They are especially at risk of abuse, including violence and even murder. Most enter into marriages without knowing their spouse’s prior criminal record, which may include domestic violence, assault, and murder. Many victims resist seeking help, fearing further abuse or deportation.

The Tahirih Justice Center has spearheaded efforts to curb abuses related to IMBs. They report that many of the men who use IMBs intentionally seek women who do not speak English and who were raised in cultures in which a married woman is expected to be subservient. They also note that some of these men are violent predators who return to IMBs repeatedly to find their next victim.

Domestic violence is a serious abuse and violation of human rights. Immigrant women are among the most vulnerable because they are less likely to have knowledge of legal protections and services available to them. A 2003 survey found that over 50 percent of the providers of legal assistance serving battered immigrant women had helped women who met their abusive husbands through IMBs. As victims in a foreign country, many are afraid and unaware of the rights and protections that US law affords them. Additional safeguards are needed to regulate these businesses and require them to disclose information about their customers to perspective brides.

Victims of all these types of marriage are at greater risk of domestic violence, rape, abuse, neglect, and forced domestic servitude.  Inspired by the case of a woman who paired with an abusive spouse and was unable to receive assistance from the IMB, the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act (IMBRA) of 2005 represents a strong step toward enabling the US government to protect the rights of immigrant women who contract with IMBs.

The organization Save Your Rights is specifically dedicated to addressing the issue of forced marriages. Women for Afghan Women has a special concern for these issues as they are so prevalent in that country. Besides being active in Afghanistan, they run a program here in New York where we host a sizable Afghani community.

Unchained At Last is the only nonprofit in the US dedicated to helping women and girls leave or avoid arranged/forced marriage.

You can ACT to help: Tell Congress to Help Stop Child Marriage by signing an e-petition in support of the International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act (H.R. 6087) which is in the early stages of legislation.

United Nations Women, U.S. National Committee: Ending Child Marriage

See also: Too Young to Wed: Ending Child Marriage

Video: CHILD MARRIAGE, Council on Foreign Relations

Related news:

America’s Child Marriage Problem, by Fraidy Reiss, NY Times, October 13, 2015

Child Marriage in the US   AHA Foundation October 15, 2015

Till Death Do Us Part: The forgotten US victims of forced marriage,  In depth four part article from Al Jazeera, by Alyana Alfaro, Sarah Fournier,  and Mary Zarikos, January 21, 2014

Protecting the Girl Child: Using the law to end child, early and forced marriage and related human rights violations. Equality Now, January, 2014, 55 pg. report

EWL to highlight links between trafficking in women and international marriage brokers,  22 January, 2014, European Women’s Lobby/Europeen des Femmes. What is Being Done to Reduce the Vulnerability of Girl’s entering Europe through International Marriage Brokers/ Mail Order Bride Agencies?

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One Response to “Servile Marriages”

  1. The Married Life of a Marriage Afghanistani “Woman” | uiwomenscenter Says:

    […] Soon to be wed Faiz Mohammed, 40, and Ghulam Haider 11, Ghowr Province, Afghanistan. (Photo by Steph… […]

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